City officials -- hoping better educated foot soldiers can wage a smarter battle against an all-time high rat population -- have opened the Rodent Control Academy, an insitution of higher learning about vermin that scurry around in low places.
The city enlisted Bobby Corrigan to teach a decidedly creepy curriculum that strives to show city workers how to properly bait, trap and poison the rodents in ways that don't just drive an infestation down the block.
Rodent complaints and health department exterminations are at unprecedented highs in New York, and the little ruffians are everywhere -- scampering through subway tunnels, rooting through trash, dashing across parks, burrowing into the walls of apartment buildings. They can transmit disease, start fires by gnawing on electrical cords, and sometimes bite, usually children and the elderly.
"There's no question that we have a rat problem ... the city has put out traps and poison at record rates," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in September while outlining the city's yearly report card, which showed a dramatic increase in rat complaints.
The dilemma is exacerbated by bureaucracy, because one infestation usually requires the attention of several municipal agencies.
Consider this: A complaint comes in about a swarm of rats overtaking the corner of a city park. That is the parks department territory, but if it's near a subway line, the transportation department is involved. Nearby restaurants mean the health department might want to weigh in. If there are sewer lines, better call the Department of Environmental Protection. The list goes on.
‘Everybody working together’
Now, any agency that ever deals with a single rat is sending its employees to the Rodent Control Academy, where Corrigan schools them about everything regarding rats and the best practices for getting rid of them, putting all city departments on the same page.
"It's everybody working together to eradicate the problem," said Flavia Diaz, who works for the pest control arm of the Health Department, which organized the course that is funded by a $600,000 (euro509,120) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant.
To lead the academy, the city tapped Corrigan, a world-renowned expert who once spent months living in a rat-infested barn to better study the rodent's behavior.
The Brooklyn native who now lives in Indiana is so enthused about the animal that he occasionally yelps with excitement, especially when debunking rat myths. And there are enough urban legends about these creatures for Corrigan to spend a significant amount of class time knocking them down.
After explaining the rat's formal name, "rattus norvegicus," Corrigan projects a giant photograph of a scrawny rat up on the wall and tells his students that, despite widespread rumors and tall tales, New York City's rodents are not "as big as cats."
"People like to say, 'I saw a super rat in the subway, or I saw a super rat in the alley way. It was a giant,'" Corrigan said.
In fact, he says, the biggest rat in New York would weigh about a pound and three ounces (half a kilogram). Other widely believed rat trivia that are untrue: They don't urinate uncontrollably, they're not blind and there aren't legions of rats below the city -- most are at ground level or living in walls and ceilings. In extreme cases, rats have been found nesting in bases of beds, chairs and couches.
Rats are not triple-jointed, or boneless, or made up of a soft skeleton that lets them squeeze through small holes. They do only need a half-inch (1.3-centimeter) opening, but that is because they're just flexible.
As for those who are terrified of a rat running up the pant leg? That's not exactly unfounded. A scared rat confronted by a human will be looking for somewhere to hide, and a shadow cast by a cuff looks mighty safe.
"They'll head for the shadow thinking it's a hole, and up the leg they'll go," said Corrigan, who speaks from experience.
And the saying that there's a rat for every one of New York's eight million residents? Not true. Corrigan says there's no way to know how many rats reside in the city, and can only define it as having "no shortage of them."
The city wants to arm its rat school graduates with the right kind of knowledge to make a dent in the infestation.
Anyone can kill off a few rats by laying poison and setting traps, but rooting out an entire population from a neighborhood takes interagency coordination and planning.
Students learn in the course that the average rat eats one ounce of food every 24 hours, so a family of 16 rats consumes an entire pound ( 0.45 kilograms) every day.
Sloppy sanitation is often to blame for keeping them fed.
"We don't have major rat infestations unless there's major food available," Corrigan said. "When people say 'How do I get rid of rats,' the first thing I always say is, 'Tell me what they're eating.' I don't say, 'Oh here's the poison.'"
Of course, poison and traps play an important role in the rat war, and the academy dedicates several sessions to techniques for placement and use of those devices. For example, glue traps don't work well for rats because those whisker-like hairs help them avoid unfamiliar objects in their paths.
Corrigan recommends setting previously used traps, because the pheromones make rats more likely to approach them. Students also learn to mimic Mother Nature when distributing bait pellets in a burrow -- scattering them like seeds, berries or nuts blown by the wind.
Rats are highly sensitive to changes in their environments, and will steer clear of items and patterns that don't fit in.
"I've learned a lot -- he's giving us different avenues and better knowledge to apply to what we already know," said Jairo Matos, a student who does pest control for the New York City Housing Authority.
This week the students are all from city housing departments, next up is education. Corrigan tailors the curriculum slightly for each agency, but most of his tips and tricks for spotting and eradicating critters apply to everyone.
"When you're done with this academy," he tells his class on the first day, "you're going to walk down a New York City street and see everything differently."